Monday, May 5, 2008

Conserving MP

Whenever I play an RPG, I typically conserve MP (or AP, SP, etc) to a ridiculous degree. For example, I always watched my MP like a hawk when I was playing Dragon Quest VIII. Since Angelo had a move that allowed him to restore his own MP, I always kept his MP full. I only felt comfortable using his expensive spells when his MP was near full. Furthermore, I typically ended a dungeon with more than half of Jessica's MP left over. Since she couldn't regenerate MP, I typically avoided using her magic if possible. I only started using her cheap 2-4 MP cost moves regularly once she had a MP max over 250. I conserved Yangus's MP the most, since he only had a fraction of what the other characters did. So, he typically ended a dungeon with three quarters of his MP remaining.

I think my approach to using spells and skills is actually an outgrowth of the way Dragon Quest VIII and other RPGs are designed. Typically, a dungeon is a long haul full of monsters that in of themselves are not a significant threat to a party at normal fighting condition. However, most RPGs have a boss encounter at the end of a dungeon (or multiple bosses throughout the dungeon) that do represent a significant risk. So, a reasonable strategy for a player would be to maximize his chances at defeating the boss by saving up as many resources as possible for the fight.

This strategy is reinforced by the common trend of making regular monster encounters simple to overcome without the use of magic spells or other significant resources. For example, I was able to defeat almost every regular enemy in Dragon Quest VIII using nothing but regular physical attacks and 0 MP special moves. I only resorted to using magic when fighting certain enemies with very large HP totals or unusually large groups of monsters. In most Final Fantasy games, I see similar patterns.

Perhaps the single best example of this phenomenon in play is the Playstation game Breath of Fire 3. The main character of the game, Ryu, possessed the strongest healing magic of any character on the team. He had the best all-character heals and revive spells. Yet, I never used these spells much at all over the entire length of the game. Why? Because Ryu could use his dragon transformation powers during boss fights instead. By using up all of his AP, Ryu could sustain his transformation for about five to six turns, while dishing out the most damage of any character. If I had used up Ryu's AP earlier in the dungeon by using his healing a lot, his time spent in dragon mode would be much shorter. Since AP restoration items were rare and expensive, restoring Ryu's AP before a boss fight was never really an option.

I think this pattern of gameplay can negatively impact a game's experience. Since the player is discouraged from using his flashier and more strategically complex special moves and spells, it reduces regular monster encounters (which typically make up the largest part of the game experience) into a very repetitive grind. It can also make the player feel like they have wasted their resources if they come out of a dungeon with characters who still have most of their MP.

However, there are several games that break out of this pattern. One of the best examples is the original Grandia. In Grandia, I used magic spells and special attack skills much more often than my basic attacks, even against regular enemies. This is because Grandia did two things differently than most RPGs. First off, a character in Grandia could only learn new spells and special moves by using their current magic spells a lot of times. This encouraged the player to actually use magic. Second, save points that automatically restored the party's HP and MP were consistently located just before every boss fight. This freed the player from having to worry about saving enough resources for the boss. So, instead of saving MP in Grandia, I ended up trying to waste it.

Another game that pulls this off is Persona 3, and for similar reasons to Grandia. Once again, Persona 3 allows the player to approach boss fights in peak fighting condition, no matter what. However, instead of encouraging the player to use spells through a "level up through use" system, it did so by making battles hard. Since individual monster encounters in Persona 3 have the very real risk of ending in game over, the player is encouraged to not hold back with limited resources like SP.

Since the condition where a player plays through a game is the result of the developers' game design decisions, and may have a negative impact on the player's experience, figuring out ways of breaking out of traditional patterns in the way games like Grandia and Persona 3 did is not a bad idea at all.

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